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College Students Pitch in at Alpaca Farm as Part of "Alternative" Spring Break

Cleaning up alpaca barns and preparing alpaca fiber to be processed has been part of the experience for six Minnesota students who have spent an alternative spring break at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

The students traveled from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona to participate in their SOUL — Serving Others United in Love — experience at the White Violent Center for Eco-Justice at SMWC.

An alternative break is a trip where a group of college students engage in volunteer service, typically for a week, as a change from “traditional” spring or fall break trips. Each trip has a focus on a particular social issue, such as poverty, education or the environment.

Students learn about the social issues and then perform projects that can challenge them to critically think and react to problems faced by members of the communities they are involved with.

“Alternative spring breaks have become popular as a way for students to do something socially active and positive over their spring break rather than party,” said Robyn Morton, associate director of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, which is a ministry of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

The aim of the experience is to contribute volunteer hours to communities in need, and to positively influence the life of the alternative breaker.

“The nice thing about this trip is that we’re a small group,” said Katie Zuzek, a junior elementary education major. It was her first alternative spring break experience, and certainly her first time being around the long-haired alpaca herd.

“We worked with the alpacas on Tuesday,” she said, “and we had a good time with them.”

She was also busy decorating letters for a Peace banner that will be displayed on the college grounds during the upcoming Earth Day celebration. In fact, a lot of the work the students performed has been in preparation for the 15th annual Earth Day on April 20.

“The work and projects make for better awareness for the environment and maybe give us some ideas to bring back to our campus, such as recycling or composting,” Zuzek said.

The group cleaned up pastures and along trails, helped with herbal salves and sorted fiber that will be spun into yarn. They organized organic gardening equipment, and worked in the greenhouse and with seeding.

Student leader Jake Traxler, a senior biochemistry major, said he finds value in the SOUL trips because of the new experiences that the students gain.

This past week’s work at the White Violent Center was Traxler’s six such trip.

From his trip to Guatemala, he said, he learned about the issues of fair trade coffee, and his fellow Minnesota students helped make a change to offer fair trade coffee on their campus.

The “greening” of the Minnesota campus also grew from student awareness of the environment gained on the SOUL trips, he said. For instance, the food services area offers reusable, recyclable take-out boxes rather than Styrofoam containers. They also don’t have trays, so people don’t take too much food, only what they need. Paper waste has also been reduced through reusable plastic food baskets instead of paper plates.

Another new experience for him was working with at-risk juveniles in Rhode Island. They were youths who needed direction, and he saw the life challenges that they face every day.

“I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, and they weren’t aware of social issues,” Traxler said of his “sheltered” youth.

The Minnesota students, along with an adviser, are concluding their alternative spring break this morning.

During their stay at SMWC, the group has not had a chance to leave campus. But they did have a dinner and movie night with other interns on campus, where they cooked using all local foods and watched a movie on conservation.

“We count on them; they are essential,” Morton said of the student workers. “This is our big press to get everything cleaned back up after a long winter and prepared to go for planting.”

They also made all the potting mix, restacked hay, cleaned out barns, painted lockers and did tasks that would take hours if done by volunteers.

“If they weren’t here, this stuff wouldn’t get done,” Morton said.

To learn more about White Violet Farms, please visit their website at